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Originally published September 9, 2009 at 5:25 PM | Page modified September 10, 2009 at 1:33 AM

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Backers won't appeal public vote on gay benefits

Supporters of the state's most recent expansion of domestic partnership rights announced Wednesday they won't appeal to the Washington Supreme Court to try and block a public vote on the new law.

Associated Press Writer

OLYMPIA, Wash. —

Supporters of the state's most recent expansion of domestic partnership rights announced Wednesday they won't appeal to the Washington Supreme Court to try and block a public vote on the new law.

Washington Families Standing Together chairwoman Anne Levinson said the group will now focus on a campaign to ensure the law is retained.

Referendum 71, sponsored by a conservative political group called Protect Marriage Washington, asks voters to approve or reject the "everything but marriage" domestic partnership law that state lawmakers passed earlier this year.

The new law would add more legal rights to the state's established domestic partnerships for gay couples, putting registered partners on par with married couples under state law. Under current Washington law, if one partner is at least 62, unmarried heterosexual couples are also allowed to register as domestic partners.

An "accept" vote on R-71 would put the newest law into place, and a "reject" vote would block it. The underlying laws laying out domestic partnerships - enacted in 2007 and broadened once already in 2008 - would not be affected.

In a statement late Wednesday, Levinson said the group has to prepare for the election "without the distraction of an ongoing legal debate." But she said it still disagrees with the Tuesday ruling of a Thurston County Superior Court judge who wouldn't block the vote.

Judge Thomas McPhee rejected the group's argument that Secretary of State Sam Reed improperly accepted thousands of petition signatures that supported putting R-71 on the ballot.

Levinson's group had argued that signature-gatherers needed to sign declarations that, by law, were printed on the petitions professing that all the signatures were gathered properly. In some cases, the space on the back of the ballot for the signature-gatherer's name was left blank or rubber-stamped with a sponsor's signature.

The judge sided with the state, which has accepted petitions without signed declarations since 2006 under legal guidance from the state attorney general.

McPhee also rejected the argument that Reed improperly counted signatures from people who weren't registered voters when they signed the petitions.

"But this fight isn't about the interpretation of referenda statutes," Levinson said. "Something far more important is at stake."

Reed certified R-71 for the November ballot last week. Election officials revised the number of accepted signatures downward Tuesday, after an audit showed some signatures had been incorrectly accepted.

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The latest official tally of accepted petition signatures for R-71 was 121,780 - about 1,200 more than the minimum required to qualify for the ballot.

Protect Washington attorney Stephen Pidgeon said he was happy the legal battle to the ballot had ended.

"We believe that even though this is an impassioned issue that civil discourse is possible, that the high road can be taken, and that ultimately Washington voters will make an intelligent and informed decision," he said.

A separate federal lawsuit brought by R-71's sponsors seeks to keep those signed referendum petitions secret.

The petitions are considered public records under state law, but R-71's sponsors claim petition-signers could face harassment by political opponents if their names are released. U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle is expected to rule in that case this week.

The domestic partnership expansion was supposed to take effect July 26, but the referendum campaign put it on hold. Now, the law will take effect only if approved by voters Nov. 3.

As of this week, more than 5,900 domestic partnerships have been filed with the state since the law took effect in 2007.

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On the Net:

Legislature: http://www.leg.wa.gov

Washington Families Standing Together: http://www.wafst.org

Protect Marriage Washington: http://www.protectmarriagewa.com

Domestic partnership information: http://www.secstate.wa.gov/corps/domesticpartnerships

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